I have a Ph.D. in psychology, and I love working with humans. We are such fascinating creatures who carry our strengths and quirks with us as we enter the workplace.
One of the quirkiest quirks I see among my clients is a belief that we can be in two places at once, or doing two things at once. Our day-to-day responsibilities can feel overwhelming. We start to believe that we can “split” ourselves into two (or more) people who operate independently – and accomplish twice as much!
Quantum physics aside, human beings experience time sequentially; one thing follows another. Logically, we know that we cannot be in two places at once, but we really wish we could. We wish that there was a pill or a sister wife or some other way of duplicating me.
Two People – Two Calendars
One way this desire for duplication manifests itself is if you use two or more calendars to manage your time. For example, you may have your work calendar for your business obligations and your personal calendar for everything else.
Using multiple calendars introduces a level of complexity into your time management practices that is usually unnecessary and can cause problems.
The first issue is how you handle the inevitable areas of overlap between the various calendars. You still have non-work responsibilities that, within reason, will need to be attended to during business hours. Attempting to maintain two calendars is a false dichotomy – you are one person, not two.
Another problem with two calendars is that you triple the amount of maintenance you have to do with your calendar system – yes triple. You have to (1) maintain calendar A, (2) maintain calendar B, and (3) compare them to each other to ensure that you have not double-booked yourself.
So, acknowledge the fact that you are one person and centralize your appointments and obligations onto one calendar. Google calendar, if it is available to you, has great features for calendar integration. If you are concerned about your work colleagues viewing your personal appointments on Outlook, you can mark those calendar entries private.
Two People – Two Tasks
A second common manifestation of the belief that humans can be duplicated lies in the practice of multitasking. The notion that you can successfully perform two or more tasks at the same time may be a source of pride, but more likely, it is inhibiting your performance.
The myth of multitasking is the belief that we can double our results by splitting our attention. The reality of multitasking is that we are not doing multiple things simultaneously – we are rapidly switching back-and-forth between tasks.
There are meaningful costs to this rapid-fire task switching. According to Dr. David Meyer, it will take you 25 to 50 percent longer to complete a task while multitasking as opposed to doing it alone. So if you are multitasking because one of your tasks is distasteful or boring, you are prolonging the agony.
So, what is the alternative? Unitasking. Do one thing at a time. You’re working this way anyway while multitasking, but with unitasking, you are switching tasks much less rapidly, and only at appropriate stopping points.
Here are some ways to be a better unitasker:
- Focus on one thing at a time – it may only be for fifteen minutes, but during that time, unitask. Use a timer to help you stay focused.
- Turn off visual and auditory notifications of incoming email on your computer and all mobile devices.
- Close or minimize your email during meetings or when you are working on other tasks.
Why? Good gravy. Why?
How do you break an egg? A glass? A rock? Apply pressure.
How to you break a human? The same way.
From where does this pressure to split our time, and thus ourselves, come?
- Desire to be the consummate professional who is not affected by home life at work
- Desire to be the perfect person at home who is not impacted by work stress
- Fear that even a temporary lack of focus on a task means that we will forget it
Dealing with life’s pressures is the subject of many books written by people smarter than me. From a productivity standpoint, I do have some suggestions about where to start.
First, recognize that time is linear and so are calendars. Sure, you have the ability to double- or triple-book yourself, but you can only be truly present, physically and mentally, for one appointment at a time.
Second, acknowledge what you know already – multitasking is not the most effective way to work. Give yourself the gift of focus. You work environment may not allow this all day every day, but find opportunities.
Third, manage your time well. You may be adding unnecessary pressure to your work and life by being disorganized. A beautifully-managed task list will not solve all of your problems, but without one, you will exacerbate them. Need help with this? Email me for a free assessment.
The mindfulness movement encourages us to embrace the present and our “wholeness” as individuals. While there are days that I would like to assign “Meditate and do yoga” to my imaginary sister wife, I know that I am one person and only one person. My calendar and task list keep me grounded in reality and my dreams and goals keep me reaching for something greater. But it’s still just me, with my strengths and quirks, in the middle of it all. And, that’s okay.
This post originally appeared on the Redbooth blog.
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Melissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at email@example.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.
Melissa I loved your article and your suggestions to stop trying to be superhuman and focus on being a human that is present and focused. Hope all is well.
Thanks, Ralph. My meditation teacher told me that we are all a “compassionate mess.” I like that. It’s a good goal.
Does your meditation practice help you to have better focus in other areas of your life? It seems like it would.
It likely has. I have seen the greatest benefits of meditation on my ability avoid overreacting to situations and in my self-compassion.
I can do two things at once if one of them is brainless, like fold clothes and listen to a book or music. However, whenever I try to toggle between two thinking tasks, I know I’m not getting my best result with either. It is still so tempting, but I really need to set my phone aside and turn to the TV off to write and create. I’m trying to remind myself of this and strengthen the “unitasking” muscle.